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When authenticity does more harm than good

Let us consider two scenarios, you are the consultant:

Scenario (1): Imagine that a longtime company client effectively told you that they wanted to transform their high-profile global customer forum into a new product sales event. Given management’s declared commitment to customer satisfaction and net promoter scores, you would have thought that this a serious mistake; the move would clearly undermine hard-won credibility and inhibit honest feedback from the firm’s smartest and loyal customers.

You argued that the regular C-suite participants were unlikely to see the shift as customer-centric. “Let’s preserve at least one event where our best customers, not our newest products, are the real stars. Let’s better balance selling and listening. Let’s respect our declared values since the forum is called a global customer forum, not a sales event.”

However, the management response was polite dismissal where your authentic concerns were perfunctorily acknowledged but refuted, and your contract were not renewed. Soon after the sales-centric forum went forward and proved as embarrassing and, according to account executives, an expensive error of judgment. The customers were unhappy and sales decreases instead of increases.

Scenario (2): Imagine that a CEO client had you review her pitch to sell the company. The presentation was excellent. However, a key section completely misrepresented and misunderstood a critical buyer issue. Your authentic reaction? Any serious purchaser would roll their eyes, close their checkbook and decline a meeting. Meaning, she’d crafted a deal-killer unconsciously; even though this reflected poorly on her business judgment, but how shall you expressed this concerns of yours?

Once you made up your mind, you decided to repressed that response. Instead, you emphasized the proposal’s great strengths but suggested she’d be wise to have a (specific) member of her board review that specific section. And the result? The subsequent revision was flawless and your reputation unharmed.

Analysis of the event:

In the first case, you were an authentic failure; while in the second, a less-than-authentic success. And honestly, I greatly prefer the latter. So should you. Authenticity as a professional virtue is wildly overrated since its real-world costs frequently outweigh its promised benefits. But that doesn’t mean that you must not be authentic. Just be politically authentic, since most of the time it is not really about what you said, but the way you said it that makes the difference.

Authenticity as a professional virtue is wildly overrated since its real-world costs frequently outweigh its promised benefits


Authenticity which sometime is defined as “the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures” would seems less a managerial necessity than a narcissistic tendency.

If being true to one’s self means alienating colleagues or clients, does that signify personal integrity or professional counter-productivity? Should your boss or biggest client treat you horribly, but authentically declare that’s solely because they believe that’s the best way to get your best work? Should you graciously acknowledge and respect such authenticity?

Well, these aren’t rhetorical questions as much as empirical challenges to the romantic assertions that authenticity is a managerial quality to be diligently cultivated rather than rigorously avoided.

In truth, authenticity may be more valuable as interpersonal means than self-actualizing end.

For example, is it OK to Yell at Your Employees? Example such as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Sir Alex Ferguson, among the plethora of successful leaders who regularly raised their voices to elevate expectations. While no one questioned these high-decibel displays as fake or phony. However it is important to note that these successful leaders does not resort to yelling all the time and to everyone, but rather selectively and depending on which employee or subordinate that they are dealing with at the moment (or case to case basis). Take Sir Alex Ferguson for example, his hair dryer treatment during his highly successful tenure as the Red Devils manager were legendary, but he was quotes to treat Nani differently, Sir Alex Fergusan never yelled at Nani. Why? Simply because Nani wouldn’t react well to being shouted at.


He names Nani as one of those who wouldn’t react well to being shouted at, but Ferguson – a master man-manager – knew this and handled the Portuguese winger differently.

“Sir Alex was really clever like that,” Rooney said. ‘He knew who he could have a go at, who it was best to leave alone. He always knew it brought the best out of me. It wouldn’t work with Nani.”


Yet authenticity enthusiast typically recoil at rude, crude, and authentically effective bad behavior. But what do we do about authentic manipulators and jerks? Perhaps the opposite of authenticity isn’t fakery but civility and good manners. Authenticity, like beauty, is in the eye of its beholder. What I passionately share as authentic, you may experience as arrogant. What you viscerally, instantly, and authentically veto as not “on brand,” I authentically interpret as thoughtless, witless and mindless rejection. Improving our respective AQs—“Authenticity Quotients”—would likely make our interactions worse, not better.

After all, which “authenticity” is truly fit to rule? Is it Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, the immediate authenticity of pattern matching and recognition that some psychologists call “intuition”? Or does Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow come closer to the authenticity mark? As every reader well knows, “in the moment” authenticity feels vastly different from authenticity expressed after thought and reflection. It is as if our thought and reflection are actually a filter for our mind in order to express our authenticity in a well mannered and civilized ways.

That said, arguing that authenticity is great for wonderful people but makes a poor behavioral choice for jerks simply doesn’t buy you much. The empirical truth is that there are many kinds of authenticity and even more ways they can be (mis)interpreted.

In remarkably short periods of time, people could determine authenticity’s effectiveness as a workplace value. Does “to thine own self be true” demonstrably trump “discretion is the better part of valor” in facilitating productive workplace outcomes? Does “fake it ’til you make it” really deliver? If authenticity is truly so important, then let’s truly attempt to measure its influence and impact.

As mentioned by a saying of Holy Prophet, Muhammad SAW (albeit it is a Da’if Hadith), there is no wisdom like reflection, and no honor like good manners, hence, let us filter our authenticity through reflection and expressed it in the best manners possible. Let’s us be authentic but at the same time, considerate and kind.

It was narrated from Abu Dharr that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said:
“There is no wisdom like reflection, and no honor like good manners.”
Grade   : Da’if (Darussalam)        
Reference: Sunnah Ibn Majah (English reference),  Vol. 5, Book 37, Hadith 4218


Categories: Islam

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